Slavery in Britain: making reparation

On paper, we took a leading stance against the evils of slavery towards the end of the 18th century.

Some of our most distinguished members of staff were active in the abolitionist movement and expressed their opposition. We had strong links to the Glasgow Emancipation Society; our Chair of Astronomy John Pringle Nichol became its president, and alumnus James McCune Smith (1813–65) was one of its founding members. Smith is renowned as the first African American ever to gain a medical degree from any university, which he gained here in 1837 after he’d been denied entry to several American institutions due to the colour of his skin.

Our celebrated alumnus Adam Smith tried to persuade people of the economic futility of slavery and staff and students drew up several anti-slave trade petitions, one of which was discussed in Parliament in 1826 after gaining 38,000 signatures. Members of the University’s Senate declared it their wish to see “the infamous Traffick… banished from the face of the earth.” And in 1791, we awarded an honorary degree to abolitionist leader William Wilberforce.

However, in 2018, following research by our School of Humanities on Runaway Slaves in Britain, the University re-examined its past. Despite our historic commitment to abolition, we were compelled to confront the fact that we gained significant financial benefits in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries through donations and bequests with their roots in slave ownership and the trade in slave-produced goods.

In 2018, we became the first UK university to acknowledge this with the publication of a comprehensive report, Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow. This aimed to determine the extent to which we benefited financially from the profits of slavery, estimated as up to almost £200 million in today’s money, and to launch a major plan of reparative justice over the coming decade.

First steps

Worldwide, it’s been suggested that compensation owed for the damage caused by slavery should run to around $12 trillion. As part of our far-reaching contribution to this

  • we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of the West Indies, designed to nurture relationships and establish a Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research
  • we are creating an interdisciplinary centre for the study of historical slavery and its legacies
  • we have increased the racial diversity of our staff since 2017
  • campus buildings and spaces, such as our flagship James McCune Smith Learning Hub, are being named or renamed in honour of those people of black origin associated with the University
  • a programme of scholarships has been launched to allow students of Afro-Caribbean descent to study at the University to address the fact they are currently under-represented.

Will we ever know whether we are doing enough to compensate for our links to slavery? We all have a shared responsibility to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, but with such projects as Runaway Slaves and our reparative justice plan, we are moving in the right direction to recognise and repair the wounds of the past.

This article was first published September 2020.

Reparative justice at Glasgow

January 2015

'Runaway Slaves in Britain' project begins

June 2016

UofG Senior Management Group commission report into slavery

September 2018

Professor Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen publish 'Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow'

October 2018

James McCune Smith Learning Hub named after UofG African-American alumnus

July 2019

MoU between University of Glasgow & University of the West Indies signed in Caribbean

August 2019

MoU between University of Glasgow & University of the West Indies signed in Glasgow

September 2019

Launch of James McCune Smith Scholarships for BAME students

December 2019

Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research holds first meeting in Barbados

September 2020

University is shortlisted for University of the Year by THE for our reparative activities